Interview with Soili Karme (Saarinen)
In the beginning of the 70’s she was a well-liked person in paddocks in her own country as well as foreign countries. Together with her husband they went from Grand Prix to Grand Prix where many victories took place. We are talking about Soili Karme (Saarinen). Wife of the late Jarno Saarinen who died way to young. In 1972 Jarno became world champion in the 250 CC class and in the 350 cc class Jarno came in second place as a runner op to Giacomo Agostini at the MV Agusta. In 1973 Jarno got access to Yamahas factory bikes for the 250 cc and 500 cc classes. Nothing seemed to be in the way of his success but unfortunately everything went sideways. On may 20th 1973 Jarno lost his life. Together with Renzo Pasolini he was involved in a fatal accident during the 250 cc race at Monza and a lifelong dream was shattered. After this tragedy the always friendly and smiling Soili was no longer seen in the paddocks and, together with her husband, left a great void. Nowadays, almost 48 years past and Jarno and Soili are still in the heads of many racing lovers. Also they are still spoken about on many motorsports websites. With some help I came in contact with Soili Karme and she agreed to do an interview via e-mail.
What was your age when you met Jarno and how did you meet each other?
We met with Jarno very young, he was 16 and me only 14 on a country road near the summerhouse of my parents, he thought who is that girl riding by moped. He had a then a Puch 175cc motorcycle. That time it was not common for a girl to ride by moped and without a helmet and I had got the moped of my elder sister so young.
Was Jarno already racing at that time or was he occupied with other activities?
Jarno started racing one year after when we met, but he already worked summertime in Tunturipyörä, a factory of Tunturi bicycles and the importer of Puch. There he was able to prepare a bike.
Do you remember the first time you joined Jarno to a race and do you remember where that race was?
I was 15 when I joined Jarno to an ice race near Turku on a small lake and he was 3. by his Puch in 250cc class. Same year he also rode his first road race in Turku. Then it was called TT in Finland in those times. (Later RR). He rode by Puch 250cc but had engine troubles. That time there were many ice races but now really the climate is warmer and the ice in southern Finland is not strong enough during the whole winter. Esko-Matti Harkke the owner of Tunturipyörä had noticed his skills and helped by giving a bike for him. And the permit to do his bikes in the factory.
In those days, everything was still very basic. There were no luxury paddocks, but everyone always had a really good time together. For you, what was the best part of life in the paddocks?
The best thing in the paddocks was the common passion and atmosphere, almost all were friends and there was not so much money, so everybody also often helped each others.
With which other wives of racers did you have the most contact during the Grand Prix?
In GPs there was very few women that time, and I had so much to do to help Jarno all the time because he was his own mechanic, I did everything which I was able to do. And I mostly drove the van and trailer at night that he could sleep. We stayed together mostly with swedish Börje Jansson and Kent Andersson, Bosse Granath and other swedish pilots and their mechanics. Tepi Lönsivuori was always beside us, we helped him a lot, when he spoke only finnish and I was glad when he later brought Helena his girlfriend and future wife to the paddock. So I could stay a bit with her.
Could you make a living of Jarno’s racing career or did you or both of you have jobs on the side?
We were still at first studying during the winter. Me in Commercial college and he in Technical college engineering. In the autumn 1970 he became 4th in 250cc championship, though, because of his studies he had to leave totally the 3 last races. Then he said he must stop racing because of the lack of money. But he became engineer in the spring 1971, and I was able to work already in the winter and I lived with my parents, so I saved all the money that we were able to leave Finland again in the spring. And then Arwidson the finnish importer gave him 250 and 350 Yamahas and spare parts. Later we were very barely able to live by the starting money and prize money though that was so very little. But as young it is not important to have so much expensive food or anything and we stayed always in the paddock.
Which riders did Jarno see as his greatest opponents?
His greatest rivals were Phil Read, Renzo Pasolini, Rod Gould, Dieter Braun and ofcourse Agostini, but Phil Read was the worst.
We all know Jarno as a mechanic and as a racer. Did Jarno have other hobbies or interest besides racing?
Jarno was very interested in photographing and he bought a very good camera in Japan. Already those smaller film cameras were coming that time and we had one.
Your opinion, what did Jarno do better, his work as a mechanic of as a racer?
It is impossible to choose, there are very few which were able to be as talented as mechanics and being racers. I know only Kel Carruthers and Jarno. I’ll tell one example, in 1972 Jarno got from Yamaha Amsterdam an aircooled Yamaha 250cc bike sponsored by Arwidson and Barry Sheene a similar bike but watercooled. Later Barry crashed by that bike and Yamaha gave it to Jarno in Opatija mid season. Barry had said: ”this is a shit bike” and got no results by it. But after Opatija Jarno did it in order and won World championship with that same bike!!!
Who for you was the most well-respected racer in those days besides Jarno?
Of course Agostini, but everybody was thinking he had always had the best bike, too lucky, if he had struggled as much as the others, would he be so good? And however Phil Read was much more harder if there was a hard battle, Ago gave up and even fell sometimes. And Angel Nieto in the 125cc but only once Jarno raced against him in Monza and Jarama 1971 when the dutch Kreidler team wanted him and Barry Sheene to help Jan de Vries and their team become World champion. Derbi had also asked Gilberto Parlotti to help Nieto on their side. Barry was not able but Jarno pushed Angel Nieto out in the last corner and Jan de Vries became the champion in the last GP. We were thinking Jan maybe did not understand it at all, what happened???
Who from those days haven’t you seen in a really long time and would you like to meet again?
I have met many old nice pilots in Classics. I was invited to Paul Ricard few years ago by the organizer and Jacques Bussillet took me there and after it many dared to invite me . But all of them do not come to Classics. But it has been nice to meet Ago, Phil, Bo Granath..... etc. and I still met Kent Andersson in Assen 1998 and Imatra. Now everybody is enjoying there when it is not serious racing and competing any more. And I even visited Ago’s home in Bergamo when Arto Teronen made a book of Jarno. Ago was very polite and friendly. But I stayed over 30 years away of races when I worked for Finnair and had my family, 2 daughters. It was better to totally leave that world after Monza but now much time has gone and I am recovered and have more time when retired.
Did Jarno prefer certain race circuits?
Yes his absolute favourite was Assen with fast corners, that he could use his style being fast and Silverstone. But Assen also already that time had safety areas!
During your foreign adventures which country did you love the most?
I liked Italy, the food and atmosphere, except Monza, it’s very bad organizers we did not know at all but we had many friends in Imola, as Dottor Costa’s family and Gianni Fantazzini and his family , the interpreter of moto club .
Did you miss your own home during the busy seasons of weekly races?
I did not miss at all. I enjoyed travelling and people in the paddock were nice. Continental circus was in a way as a big family. But I wrote letters to my parents and my father wrote letters to the adresses of organizers, I always waited for his letters.
What is the funniest thing you’ve experiences during those years of international races and Grand Prix?
The funniest and best were the first GP win in Brno 1971, we celebrated it with swedish friends and Monza 1971 win and the greatest win in 1972 Nürburgring when he could beat Ago. Only Mike Hailwood had been able to win Ago 5 years ago! But usually we did not have so much time for partying and fun . The journeys were long and the work with the bike. But sometimes it was nice just to relax a bit with friends in the paddock in the evening. We had a beer or mostly just tea together with Börje Jansson and his mechanic. He was Jarno’s best friend, when Tepi was always so quiet. Sometimes we had lunch together , everybody brought what they had.
At the end of 1972 Jarno became world champion in the 250 cc class. How did you experience that and how did you feel it personally?
It was also for me something very important. We had worked for it together! A great achievement for both of us. And in Imatra he took me up to the podium to show that we were a team of 2 persons and he respected my effort also.
1973. I do not feel comfortable asking questions about that specific year. If you feel comfortable, maybe you can tell me something about this year but of course you may also skip this question.
In 1973 everything began fine, he won Daytona 200 miles as the first european During 23 years and first time he had a mechanic there Vince French, and even by a smaller engine and after it Imola 200 miglia also but still by his own 350cc. Then in Paul Ricard he already by Yamaha team he won both MV’s Agostini and Read. And he won every race before Monza except one in Hockenheim when his chain were broken. But he was not happy and neither me, everything changed, before it had been fun to travel free but now Yamaha ordered and even team orders which he did not accept! He had said always that he wants stop at the top of his career, and now, he said he will stop the same year if he wins only one championship. If 2 he will still race the next year. But he had a chance in theory to win 3 at the same year. He was always so determined, I could trust 100% what he said and I sure believe he would have done so! We had a plan to have children and he said he wants to start normal work as engineer. Yamaha offered me a job after Jarno’s death, they said in any country and whatever I’d like to do! So they took very good care, I am thanklul, the 3 big bosses even Hata san the chif manager from Japan visited the grave and me after one year had gone of his death. I am very grateful to Yamaha for all their good care. But I liked my job to stay at first in Turku and after I have travelled even much more everywhere many years also in long haul flights of Finnair. Finnair, which was a very good airline always selected to the most safetiest airlines of the world!
After the horrible event how did you find the courage and strength to continue with life?
I realized I have to find something totally else to recover! I was sad, all my dreams for the future life collapsed and I was living with my parents. But luckily I had earlier studied in a commercial college and started to work in Turku in a big first class hotel in august as a cashier but my sister suggested Finnair is employing new cabin attendants and it really was my saviour, I could travel again and the colleagues there were very nice, they did not ask anything and I totally kept my past as a secret, however I was still a bit depressed during 2 years. But after 4 years I was married again because I so much wanted to get children to get a real purpose for my life! I was happy when I got 2 daughters but however I worked for Finnair 35 years. I really liked my job, though it was hard but now I am happily retired.
In the old days, the Grand Prix circus felt like one big family. After 1973, did you keep in touch with certain people who you met during those days in the paddock?
It was so hard to leave those people and paddocks, but that time when there were no mobile phones or else it was difficult to keep contact. But after a while I was also busy in my job and having children and now I still have some very good friends there. Classics are so very nice and now FB to keep contact. I am waiting for better times as everybody else.
In 2013 you were in Pesaro to commemorate Jarno and Renzo. You also met up with the wife of late Renzo Pasolini. How was it to see her after all those years?
Dottor Costa has also been my saviour during many years as he is to many wounded pilots and he arranged a big Memorial event in Monza when 30 years had gone. There I met first time Anna Pasolini and Renzo jr. We both had very great feelings there, hard but it also helped much to visit there. Anna was never with Renzo in the races? In Monza when we walked from the starting line to Curv one the sun was shining but soon there were dark clouds and same moment when we put our flowers to the place of the accident a terrible thunder struck and Anna Pasolini said to me “now Renzo and Jarno are up there knowing that we are here” astonishing! And later we were also in Pesaro in a nice Benelli event, and Renzo jr. has also been in Petrignano di Assisi where they have nice Jarno Saarinen Moto club, and they have made there Parco Jarno Saarinen and a statue, and another statue they donated to Turku.
Did you ever think Jarno’s legacy would live on for this long through racing lovers?
I never thought that Jarno’s legend would be so strong and his legacy is still living. I was happy and proud when Yamaha invited me to Japan in the spring 2019. It was a great honour. And there the chief manager Mr.Hidaka showed to me his old worned leaflet of his college time, where it was Jarno’s picture . He was a fan of Jarno when he was young!
Is there something you would like to say to all the people who still honour Jarno?
And for the fans I also feel I like to keep the legend living by watching pictures and writing my memories about those interesting old times in the Jarno & Soili fan club and I post some old own pictures when I have time. I like to write and I have also now helped a talented dramaturge as a guide to write an international TV serie of our life in Continental circus. Interesting for fans but I cannot tell more yet, if all goes fine it will be ready in 2023 when 50 years has gone of his death.
Looking at recent photos of you, you seem like you’ve processed the past quite well. You seem like you’ve found happiness. Is that an accurate assumption?
I still quite often visit the grave of Jarno thinking of him, but I am recovered and happy and satisfied in my life, so too much has happened to me, my life has not been dull at all.
Dear Soili, thank you very much for this interview!
Translated by Henk en Lindy Mannes.